Seal of the High Court of Chancery

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Impressions in paper of the Seal of the High Court of Chancery of the State Virginia. Original at the Arthur J. Morris Law Library Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia.

In January, 1791, George Wythe wrote to Thomas Jefferson in Philadelphia to ask his opinion about the design of a seal for the High Court of Chancery of the State of Virginia.[1] Wythe enclosed a design by Benjamin West, who had previous had a hand in designing the Great Seal of Virginia, in 1776. Wythe mentions the front of the seal picturing the story of Sisamnes, and the reverse representing "Patomoack, &c" (the Potomac River), with the words "state of Virginia." The story of Sisamnes, an unjust judge who was skinned alive for delivering an unjust verdict, is related in Herodotus' Histories.

Jefferson wrote back in July of 1792, to say that an engraver in Philadelphia, James Poupard,[2] could make the two-sided seal in brass for $64.00, or in steel for $128.00.[3] A seal as described was made, since at least one impression of it exists,[4] and a seal matching the description was donated to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1874, an impression of which was described by Benson J. Lossing in the American Historical Record (see below).[5][6]

Description of the seal

The seal would have been a coin-like two-sided metal disc or "matrix" made in brass or steel, approximately two inches in diameter. According to the query in the American Historcial Review (below), it was stamped with the mark of the engraver, "James Poupard, Philadelphia". Since this mark is not observed in impressions, it must have been along the outside edge of the seal.

The front, or obverse, of the seal is inscribed around the perimeter: HIGH COURT OF CHANCERY MDCCXC (1790). In the center is a judge seated at the entrance to—or inside—a temple; in his left hand is a scroll or proclamation; under his right hand is draped a flayed human skin. This is the son of Sisamnes, forced to sit in judgment on the punished remains of his corrupt father. Over the entrance to the temple is written in Greek, ΚΡΙΝΕ Δ ΕΥΘΕΙΑΝ ΔΙΚΗΝ: "Let thy justice be direct," spoken by the Erinyes (Furies) in the Eumenides of Aeschylus[7] To the right of the judge is a female figure, naked but for being surrounded by clouds, with light emanating from her head. She points to the inscription above the judge's head. On the left is a helmeted figure bearing the Roman fasces and a mirror.

The reverse of the seal is inscribed STATE OF VIRGINIA on the perimeter, surrounding two female figures: an image of a robed Justice in the sky, seated on clouds, bearing a sword upright on her right shoulder, and a set of scales in her left; and a Native American figure, supported by the four principal rivers of Virginia, inscribed JAMES, YORK, RAPAHANAC (?), and PATOMOAC (?), which empty into the bay of CHESAPEAK, holding a lance or oar in her right hand, and bearing tobacco leaves in her left.

American Historical Record, August 1874

Page 375


An OLD SEAL.—The seal from which the enclosed is an impression was purchased some time since by a metal merchant. It bears the stamp of "James Poupard, Philadelphia," who is registered as an engraver in the Directory of 1793. Can you give any information regarding it? It is about to be presented to the Historical Society of this State.1

C. Harrod Vinton.

Philadelphia, May, 1784.

1 The impression shows the seal to be much worn. The devices, &c., seem to be these: In the centre of the seal sits the figure of a grave man draped in robes, sitting at the portal of a temple, over which is an illegible inscription in Greek. This figure holds a naked short sword in his right hand, and evidently represents Justice. On one side of him stands, partly enveloped in clouds, and evidently representing Truth, the figure of a naked woman pointing to the inscription over the portal. On the other side is the figure of a partly-draped man, with a helmet on his head, and holding in his right hand a mirror which reflects Truth, and in the other hand the fasces and axe, symbols of the Executor of Justice. Around the edge of the seal is the legend: "HIGH COURT OF CHANCERY. MDCCXC." Is it not a former seal of the High Court of Chancery of Pennsylvania?

Dunlap says there was an "M. Poupard, an engraver in Philadelphia, about 1790." May this not have been M. or Mr. James Poupard, above referred to? M. Poupard had been a player in a theatre in Martinique, and when he came to the United States, he turned his hand to engraving. Lawson, the celebrated engraver of birds in "Wilson's Ornithology," says Poupard married a woman of some property, who was a "fanatical Methodist," and that her husband, when with her, was "as far gone as herself; when away from her he was a very merry fellow, and amused his companions by reciting and acting."—[ED.]

See also


  1. Wythe to Thomas Jefferson, 10 January 1791. The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.
  2. David McNeely Stauffer, "Poupard, James," in American Engravers Upon Copper and Steel, Vol. 1 (New York: Grolier Club, 1907),
  3. Thomas Jefferson to Wythe, 12 July 1792. The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.
  4. Seals for the State of Virginia and the High Court of Chancery, University of Virginia Law Library, University of Virginia.
  5. "An Old Seal," American Historical Record 3, no. 32 (August 1874), 375.
  6. John Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott, History of Pennsylvania, 1609-1884, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: L.H. Everts, 1884), 1055:

    J. Poupard also engraved, for the Pennsylvania Magazine, a head of Dr. Goldsmith. He engraved several plates for the second volume of the "Transactions of the American Philosophical Society," and a curious seal for a burlesque "High Court of Chancery," which is in possession of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

  7. A.W. Verrall, trans., The 'Eumenides' of Aeschylus, (London: MacMillan, 1908), 76-77.